Seeking and Being Found
A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church
on September 4, 2011, the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
by Lynn Dunn, M.Div
Director of Christian Education
White Plains Presbyterian Church
Exodus 3: 1-15 Matthew 16:21-28
As I was working on this sermon last week, an annoying phrase from the song used in the Subaru commercial kept running through my head: “Oh, yes, this is powerful stuff!”
The two readings we have just heard are powerful stuff, indeed. In the first reading, Moses is so far out in the wilderness that it is called “the back of the wilderness” at Horeb; he hears God speak from a bush that burns but is not consumed; and he is commissioned to go back to Egypt, the place he had fled, and confront Pharaoh and lead the Hebrews to a new and spacious land. This is powerful stuff.
In the second reading, Jesus had just changed Simon’s name to, “Peter,” “the Rock,” and given him the keys to the kingdom of heaven, with the power to bind and to loose all things in heaven and on earth. Now, he turns around and calls him Satan, and says, “Get thee behind me!” This, too, is powerful stuff.
These two stories are powerful, and they are the foundations of our faith. They reverberate throughout our culture and our lives. They have helped shape the lives, the self-understanding and the faith of generations. But why, and how are they relevant to us today?
Cultural Significance of Moses
For those of us steeped in the Bible, we can scarcely climb a steep hill anywhere in the world without thinking of Moses on one mountain or another, whether it is Mt. Horeb as in this story, later called Sinai where Moses received the ten commandments, or Mt. Nebo, at the end of his life, where he looked over, and saw the Promised Land that he would never enter. And if we came of age in the late 20th century, we also think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s prophetic speech the night before he was killed in April of 1968, when he said he had been to the mountaintop and had seen the Promised Land, evoking the figure of Moses on Mt. Nebo at the end of his life.
Halves of a Whole
Searching for the holy ground, we can enter the story of Moses and the burning bush from two very different places, depending on our preference (or experience). For some, it is the story of a personal spiritual journey that leads to an encounter with the living God and a commissioning for service; for others, it is the beginning of the story of liberation of a whole people from slavery. These two points of view are halves that make a whole.
Moses Meets God
As Moses approached the mountain of God, he was surrounded by uncertainty. He must have been wondering, “How could everything have gone so horribly wrong?”
Moses as a baby, born among slaves, had been carried by the river of life right into the heart of power of the mighty Egyptian empire. He seemed destined for greatness. Adopted and raised as the son of a princess, he was close to the seat of power, yet always still an alien and a stranger. He would have received a princely education, and God had graced him with a heart of compassion and a passion for justice. We learned this in the preceding chapter, when Moses was outraged to see an Egyptian strike a Hebrew. His compassion led him to take action: He killed the Egyptian and buried his crime in the sand. Then, his passion for justice led him to try to intervene in a dispute between two Hebrews, but they rejected his efforts and taunted him about his earlier crime. Pharaoh learned of it and sought to kill him– again! And so he fled to Midian– a place of refuge, but also of danger– where he lived for many years as a shepherd in the wilderness. From a promising beginning to this!
I found myself in the wilderness once, as most people have. Many years ago I was in Boise, Idaho, with a lot of time before my flight back to New York. So, I took a drive out into the high desert. I drove out to the middle of nowhere. But I was still protected by my rental car from really experiencing this place. So, I stopped and parked the car, crossed the road and began to walk out into the desert to see what it was like.
I walked down into a little hollow and the silence overwhelmed me. There was no traffic humming in the distance, not a bird or a breeze to rustle the grass or the brush. There was only an empty landscape with sky and the slightly smoky smell of dry sagebrush. I heard my own footsteps in the gravel and dirt, but once I stopped walking, all I could hear was my heartbeat and my breath, which now seemed impossibly loud.
Without any sound coming toward me to orient me in space, I felt almost dizzy. The silence seemed palpable, and I remember reaching my left hand out to see if I could touch it. It was both incredibly intimate and immensely vast. And it was absolutely terrifying.
I had brought with me into the desert that day the deepest despair I had ever known, and I wondered how everything had gone so horribly wrong. I had just dropped our daughter off at wilderness camp, but I was the one in the wilderness now– physically, emotionally and spiritually. Now, in that vast but intimate silence, I suddenly realized the truth of the saying: God is always as close as our very next breath.
I believe if I’d had the courage to stay in that silence long enough, I might have heard God speak. I know if I’d had the ability to listen more deeply at that time I’d have heard God say to me, “You’ve been trying too hard. I’ve got this. You’ve been trying to force a solution, but my way is bigger than all that, bigger than you have ever imagined.”
God and Moses and Politics
I believe that is what Moses heard. And it is what Peter ultimately learned.
Everything in Moses’ life up to then had prepared him for this moment of direct encounter with the living God. And God would use Moses to accomplish God’s plan.
Some people say that we really shouldn’t mix faith and politics. But the story of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt is a political story. It’s about power– who has it, who doesn’t, and what to do about it.
Some believe we can find a way to live ethically without God. But I believe without an authentic encounter with the Holy One, all our efforts at achieving a just society will prove, finally, to be self-serving. They will degenerate into the hideous abuses of power that have crushed millions of human beings– each one beloved and remembered by God.
God sent Moses back to Egypt to lead the Hebrews out of bondage, but slavery is still with us today. Indeed, it is, “woven into the fabric or our daily lives,” although we hardly notice. According to journalist Benjamin Skinner, interviewed on NPR in early August, there are more human beings enslaved in the world today that at any time in history.
This is shocking. Can this really be true? The State Department’s 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report says, “modern slavery continues to be a reality for millions of people, rather than for an isolated few.” The report reviews worldwide efforts to combat human trafficking, and reports on what over 180 governments throughout the world are doing — or not doing– to combat it. Human trafficking throughout the world may take many different forms: Forced labor, sex trafficking, debt bondage, involuntary domestic servitude, forced child labor, or child soldiers.
Often, desperately poor foreign workers are fraudulently recruited, and when they arrive at their destination, their documents are taken. Then they are physically and psychologically abused, imprisoned and forced into labor. Additionally, it is estimated that over a quarter million children are forced to serve in armed conflicts throughout the world. (You may have seen the red hands on the Christian Education Bulletin Board last year, which are an emblem of the Presbyterians Say No to Child Soldiers Campaign.)
But slavery is not just a problem in other countries. In early August, Jeff and Noelle arranged an educational forum here at White Plains Presbyterian Church with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who advocate for humane working conditions for agricultural workers. We gathered and heard the stories of these workers. Among the stories we heard were cases of workers who had been kidnapped, locked in trucks and subjected to physical assault and intimidation.
You may say, yes, this is terrible, but what does this have to do with our Sunday morning worship? We just came here this morning to find a closer relationship with God. But the God you seek hears the cries of the suffering throughout the world. There is no spiritual wholeness without a deeply felt compassion for all humankind and creation.
Psychologists would say that when we refuse to listen to these stories, in reality we are refusing to listen to our own woundedness. It is easier to push these stories away, than to stand humbly before God and acknowledge our powerlessness in the face of physical, emotional and spiritual suffering and death. But it is at just such times of hopelessness and powerlessness that we may find the power of God beginning to work in us and through us.
In seeking God, and being found by God, the two halves of spiritual life come together. We find personal wholeness and we are sent back out into the world to make a difference.
In May, Jeff preached a sermon series on breathing lessons. He said the church must both inhale and exhale: we are gathered and sent. This is also like the joining of our personal spiritual practice with our engagement with the world.
Gathered and sent, gathered and sent. This is the rhythm of the New Creation.
Like breathing, or the beating of our hearts, like the rhythm of our weekly worship, this is the rhythm of the Kingdom of God– both secret and proclaimed to all, both hidden and spread upon the earth for all to see. Thanks be to God!
Coalition of Immokalee Workers, “Slavery in the Fields and the Foods We Eat,” news release.
Luis CdeBaca, in Trafficking in Persons Report (United States of America Department of State, 2011), p. 2.